A Masai man talking on a mobile phone in the African savanna, Masai Mara Game Reserve. Kenya, East Africa, Africa

Demystifying Big Data for Demography and Global Health

Combining big data with traditional data can generate richly detailed and valuable analyses for global health professionals, but its use comes with drawbacks. (Population Bulletin vol. 76, no. 1)

Big data use is at an early stage in the population and health fields, and professionals in demography and global health have varying degrees of understanding of it. At the same time, they are increasingly recognizing the advantages of big data—and they must appreciate its risks.

With the newest Population Bulletin, PRB provides an accessible resource on this technical topic, examining ways that big data is being used in these fields and how we can start thinking differently about data in an increasingly connected world.

A growing number of development projects in low- and middle-income countries are making innovative uses of big data from sources such as satellite imagery, cell phone records, internet searches, and social media posts. These data are filling information gaps in places where traditional data collection, such as censuses and household surveys, is too costly or logistically challenging.

Yet, the use of big data for decision-making also has drawbacks. Big data is not representative of the whole population, and its use poses ethical and privacy concerns. Potential users of big data sources in the population and health fields should be aware of both the opportunities and challenges involved in using this newer type of data, keeping in mind three points:

  1. Traditional censuses and surveys are not obsolete; the most promising innovations combine big and traditional data in such a way that the advantages of one data source overcome the limitations of another.
  2. Big data must be collected and used ethically and responsibly, particularly when it concerns personal information.
  3. New research capacities and communities must be built to turn masses of data into meaningful information that will help public and private agencies design better programs and services to improve lives.

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PRB’s Population Bulletin series breaks down complex data and social science research into accessible population information for researchers, advocates, journalists, and decisionmakers. Explore previous Bulletins here.